As I watched Little Miss Sunshine (IMDB), this year’s Sundance-endorsed dysfunctional-family road-trip indie (and, yes, I think that’s officially a genre now), I felt as if I’d seen something so carefully calculated to appeal to its indie audience that I couldn’t really buy into the genuinely interesting, humorous, and sometimes genuinely tender moments offered by the film. Even the film’s impliict “messages,” that all families are dysfunctional and that it’s okay not to be perfect seemed ripped from the pages of previous Sundance-ready scripts. The road-trip in question is a 700-mile journey from Albequerque to Redondo Beach so that seven-year-old Olive (Abigail Breslin) can compete in the Little Miss Sunshine pageant. Olive’s family includes Richard (Greg Kinnear), a wanna-be motivational speaker waiting for his big break, Sheryl (Toni Collette), his wife who works to supprt the family, Dwayne (Paul Dano), the sullen Nitzsche reading son, Frank (Steve Carrell), Sheryl’s sucidal brother who also happens to be America’s “foremost Proust scholar,” and of course the foul-mouthed, heroin-snorting Grandpa (Alan Arkin).
Even with their quirks (and across-the-board solid performances), the characters seemed more like types than clearly-defined personalities, particularly Arkin’s grandpa gone wild. And the obstacles on their 700-mile journey, taken in a quirky VW van naturally, were utterly predictable (including at least two that reminded me of a Chevy Chase movie). The VW van’s broken clutch does provide an excuse for one of the film’s funnier motifs, the image of the family pushing and running alongside the van to get it started, with each family member running and leaping mock heroically into the open door. And once the family arrives at the Little Miss Sunshine pageant, the satire of child beauty pageants seemed a bit thin (although the arrest of a suspect in the Jon Benet Ramsey case gave these scenes a strange timeliness). Of course, as the pageant unfolds and the family worries that Olive will be humiliated when she performs in the talent competition, the film’s best, and most sentimental, surprise comes into play. But even as I watched this scene, I couldn’t help but feel that LMS was being cloying, as if disliking the film is tantamount to rejecting Olive’s pluckiness and spirit, and in several of these scenes, I could have easily been pulled closer to a more affirmative reading along the lines of Stephanie Zacharek’s.
Again, I feel as if I’m being unnecessarily harsh on LMS, but the film seems to illustrate much of what I find distressing (or at least remarkably uninteresting) about Indie Film today, which I want to distinguish from truly independent film, but as Jim Ridley’s Village Voice review implies, the film seems to embrace some of the worst excesses of recent indie film (although I disagree with him completely about Me and You and Everyone We Know falling into this category). At least the filmmakers had the good taste to include two Sufjan Stevens songs on the soundtrack.